Rehab referred to addiction as “the Disease.” It was portrayed as a brain parasite able to manipulate one’s very thought process. There were descriptions of how it acts and thinks, what it wants, why it strikes when it does, and all manner of ways it misleads you into believing the most outrageous lies.
The Disease has three phases, they said, keyed to the severity of consequences. In its earliest stage, people drink for relief, saying things like “I need a drink,” and meaning it quite literally. They may suffer blackouts, pick up a DUI (or two) and lose control over their use but don’t know it. At this stage, some can lead seemingly normal lives, successfully shielding themselves from terrible consequences despite their their daily drinking. These people are termed “maintenance” or “functioning alcoholics,” because they can maintain the veneer of normality. Others may be ”binge drinkers,” who get loaded regularly but whose potential for addiction is masked by the fact that they don’t drink every day. But eventually, because of the progressive nature of addiction, the pretense of maintenance drinkers’ normality breaks down and binge drinkers binge more often.
In the second stage the consequences escalate. Addicts in this phase suffer “psycho-social problems,” losing jobs, friends and families as a result of their erratic behavior. They often suffer worsening legal problem; divorce, more DUIs, and such, and worsening living standards, sometimes sinking to homelessness. This is usually the point where their families attempt interventions.
The final stage was characterized as “body rot,” involving multiple organ failures (liver, kidney, pancreas, etc.) and death.
There aren’t any bright lines separating these stages and addicts don’t see the progression of the disease from one to another because they’re in denial, part of the mis-working of the addict mind.
Rehab instructed us that addiction was a “shame-based disease,” in which addicts give themselves what they think they deserve. They diagrammed the ”cycle of shame” to which addicts fall prey as they descend into slow-motion suicide.
The Disease is chronic, progressive, and if untreated, terminal. It doesn’t disappear with abstinence as much as lurk, biding its time waiting for a moment of weakness to spring forth with full vigor. Its hold over your brain, even your sober brain, is so strong that “relapse triggers,” anything associated with drugging or drinking can precipitate a craving and, in turn, relapse.
The Disease has a mind and agenda of its own. In the short run, it wants you to use more. Like anything, it needs to be fed. But once whetted, its appetite can never be sated. It will make you lower your moral bar and keep lowering it, taking you places you’d never have imagined you’d go, doing things you never thought you’d degenerate to. One by one your previous lines in the sand, your moral “set-points,” are washed away by the tide of your surging addiction.
The Disease’s long-term goal is to kill. Its murderous designs are two-pronged. Externally, it attacks your social connections, insisting you can’t have what you need without getting everyone else out of the way. Internally, it destroys interest in the things you once enjoyed. Attempts to break free are overcome by the Disease’s expert exploitation of your brain’s innermost fears.
Eventually, the Disease isolates you from everything but drugs. It takes varying degrees of struggle and time, but the end is inevitable. The Disease is progressive and if untreated, fatal. It doesn’t care how it kills. Suicide is as good as an overdose, an accident, or any other cause of death.
The purpose of treatment was to provide us with a defense to the Disease by instructing us in the 12-Step solution.
Drugs like alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin are acutely toxic: take too much at once and they’ll kill you. Marijuana isn’t like that, it isn’t acutely toxic and no one dies from marijuana overdose. Accordingly, it may be the exception to the rule that drug addiction is always progressive to the point of fatality. Unfortunately, not being forced to stare into the face of imminent death makes a moment of clarity more difficult. Still, Marijuana Anonymous meetings attest that a goodly number conclude they can’t live normal lives if they smoke pot. (For more on this subject, click on Differences In Addictions.)